By Eric Kohn | Indiewire December 19, 2013 at 9:28AM
"The Past," Asghar Farhadi's first movie produced outside Iran, contains several notable shots of people looking at each other through glass. It's an apt illustration of the movie's analytic power: Throughout writer-director Farhadi's wrenching, relentlessly intelligent drama, characters shield their feelings with unspoken motives and actions. Like last year's Oscar-winning "A Separation," Farhadi's new work confirms his unique ability to explore how constant chatter and anguished outbursts obscure the capacity for honest communication.
Farhadi's latest effort also resembles "A Separation" in that it's secretly a detective story about relationships only partially understood by their participants. Ahman (Ali Mosaffa) arrives in Paris from his native Iran four years after separating from wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo) in order to finalize their divorce. He finds the family at an uneven crossroads: While Marie plans to marry Samir (Tahar Rahim), Lucie (Pauline Burlet) -- her teen daughter from an earlier marriage -- maintains distance from her mother, frustrated by the older woman's string of fleeting romances. Meanwhile, she must contend with the presence of preadolescent Fouad (Elyes Aguis), Samir's son, who lives with the family in the suburbs while Samir works in the city. Arriving at the center of this turmoil, Ahmad uncovers its most troublesome aspect through casual discussion: Samir's wife lies comatose in a hospital after a botched suicide attempt.
Farhadi's screenplay slowly reveals its puzzle pieces. With a patient rhythm developed through long takes, no soundtrack and frequent conversation, "The Past" gains momentum as it becomes clear that the condition of Samir's wife may be related to various interlocking frustrations of the family. Despite his insight into the situation, Ahmad remains a passive spectator whose mere presence represents one piece of a scheme that he gradually begins to comprehend. As he says during one exasperating exchange with his ex, "Why do I have to be here in the middle of this shit?"
Whereas "A Separation" featured a violent event that set in motion a series of conflicting testimonies, "The Past" appropriately works backward, revealing the cavalcade of circumstances behind Marie's troubled romance that led to her current problems. Bejo, in a role originally intended for Marion Cotillard, tows a fine line between credible fragility and melodramatic overstatement, particularly during the handful of shouting matches between the two older men in her life that kick the emotion into high gear. If her destructive tendencies seem at times overstated, she's also the evident victim of other agendas, including those of her angst-riddled daughter and husband-to-be. Like the window wipers superimposed over the title card, "The Past" involves a constant process of demystification for everyone involved.
Farhadi's nuanced storytelling results in an overlong and sometimes lethargic feel, occasionally to the detriment of its seriously fascinating plot, but for that same reason its set of surprises continually resonate. As Ahmad digs deeper, new twists percolate throughout the ensemble, leading to further confrontations and sympathies that shift all over the place. By the end, it's impossible to discern which characters screwed up; instead, we're left with troubled people trapped by a network of errors and tragedy.
The two leading men don't so much compete for screen time as complement each other's presence, particularly because of their physical resemblance that singles out Marie's inability to move forward. Despite her resolve, she has yet to workshop her lingering attraction to the man she's just divorced. "Miss our fights, darling?" Ahmad says through his teeth during one nasty spat, but he's not entirely off-base.
The problems these people face grow are exhausting by design. Eventually, Farhadi confronts that very issue when a supporting character advises Ahmad to step aside. "Life goes on without you and me," he says. So does the movie, which shifts gears in its final third to focus on an aspect of the scenario previously relegated to the background, but that in hindsight embodies a crucial problem that nobody manages to address: Not once does any character show signs of unadulterated affection until the memorable closing shot -- the sole glance of an intimate bond in the entire movie. Despite all that talk, only in the quietest moments does the truth come out.
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Opening this week after much acclaim, the Sony Pictures Classics release is bound to remain a solid player in awards season as it sustains visibility in the foreign language race. While not poised to become quite the same caliber of hit as "A Separation," the movie's appeal to older arthouse audiences may help it maintain a healthy presence through the new year.
A version of this review ran during the Cannes Film Festival.